French

A Fuss-Free Way to Make a Fancy French Sauce

January 11, 2016

Simply put, béarnaise sauce is a fat-in-water emulsion. The fat is melted butter and the water is a white wine and vinegar reduction. But since fat and water repel each other, they need a binding agent—here, egg yolks. When combined correctly, the ingredients will form a silky sauce you’ll want to pour in ribbons over steak (or vegetables, or eggs, or your face).

Photo by Mark Weinberg

If this strategy sounds familiar, it’s because béarnaise is basically a derivative of hollandaise, the mother sauce you love to pour over your Eggs Benedict. In fact, hollandaise and béarnaise are essentially fraternal twins; the only difference between the two sauces is their flavorings. Hollandaise gets its tang from lemon juice, while béarnaise is flavored with white wine, shallots, and tarragon. Some recipes for béarnaise add chervil as well, so feel free to throw some in during the final blending step if you see fit.

If James Beard were making a béarnaise sauce, he would use a double boiler setup, which requires the chef to furiously beat butter into hot egg yolks and acid, praying that the mixture won’t curdle. Fortunately, we can harness the power of technology to make the process slightly less anxiety-inducing. All you need is a blender and a saucepan—and a group of guests you really, really want to impress.

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Here’s how to make a béarnaise sauce, sans recipe:

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Start in the saucepan. Combine a hefty splash of both white wine and white wine vinegar in a saucepan. You’ll want to use roughly the same amount of each. Chop a couple of shallots (or one large one) and throw them into the pot along with a few stems of tarragon (save the leaves for later). Boil until the mixture is golden and has reduced to a few tablespoons, then remove the stems.

If you want to make a cheater’s Béarnaise, you can skip the reduction step and simply use a few tablespoons of white wine vinegar, but you won’t get the same depth of flavor.

Melt butter—lots. While the reduction cools, heat your butter in a saucepan (you can use the same saucepan reduced the wine in earlier). To make a cup of sauce, use about a stick of butter. Once the butter has stopped foaming, turn off the heat.

Step 1 and step 2. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Blend. Place cooled mixture in blender with egg yolks and a pinch of salt.

If you’re using two sticks of butter or less, I recommend two egg yolks. If you’re using three or four sticks of butter (wowza), add three yolks. Blend until combined. With the blender on, slowly start pouring in the melted butter through the opening in the top of your blender. It might help to recruit a friend for this step.

Add a few tablespoons of chopped tarragon leaves to the mixture and blend more. Taste. Add salt and black pepper until the sauce reaches the perfect balance of sweet, rich, and salty. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with a splash of white wine.

Alternative option: Kenji López-Alt of The Food Lab makes his béarnaise and hollandaise sauces in an immersion blender.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Pour, eat. Pour over a steak! Béarnaise would also be lovely spooned over a grilled Portobello mushroom, or used anywhere you would use hollandaise sauce.

And yep, you can make it ahead. Béarnaise sauce can be made a few hours ahead of time. Keep it out at room temperature (in the blender is fine), with a layer of plastic wrap pressed over the top to prevent a skin from forming. Right before serving, add a splash of super-hot water and blend.

What recipes can you make by heart, without a recipe? Tell us in the comments!

8 Comments

MRubenzahl January 12, 2016
Well, if you're willing to embrace the outrageous, try this. Believe me, I was skeptical but it works. It uses... the microwave. And no blender. <br /><br />3 egg yolk<br />8 tablespoons butter<br />1 tablespoon lemon juice<br />1 pinch salt<br />Black pepper<br />Cut butter into 12 pieces. Mix all ingredients. Microwave 20 seconds, stir with whisk. Microwave 10 seconds at a time, whisking in between, until it’s smooth and thickened. It’s magical.<br /><br />Credit: Donovan Fandre<br />
 
callen34 January 12, 2016
I may be missing it, but I wish there were a way to print a recipe for this.
 
cv January 11, 2016
In his own kitchen James Beard would probably forego the double boiler and simply make the Béarnaise in a saucepan directly on the stove. That's the way restaurant cooks make it: no double boiler.<br /><br />Published restaurant chefs will often include a Béarnaise recipe that calls for a double boiler in their cookbooks, but that's because the recipe is intended for home cooks with varying amounts of kitchen prowess.<br /><br />In the real restaurant world, you do this on a stove. No one in a professional kitchen has time to waste by doing this leisurely over a double boiler.
 
Sharon January 20, 2016
You're absolutely right. In the restaurants, we always whisked our Béarnaise and Hollandaise in a stainless steel bowl on the flattop grill, heated to very low. Never once used a double boiler. Of course, professional chefs can take liberties with things like this, but home cooks....not so much. I remember my very first Béarnaise made at home when I was a teen. I overheated it in the double boiler and turned it into scrambled eggs! It tasted fine but looked just awful. Nevertheless, I served it to my friend over a perfectly cooked medallion of filet mignon. She looked at it with suspicion and said, "THIS is French cooking?" LOL. Memories like that keep us humble.
 
Elana January 11, 2016
What herb would you recommend using for someone who doesn't like tarragon?
 
Donegan K. January 11, 2016
Rosemary, although most real chefs would disagree. Rosemary give that wonderful herbal, woodsy, piney taste and smell that you will love.
 
Greenstuff January 11, 2016
It won't be Béarnaise if you don't like tarragon. And if you don't like Béarnaise, I'm guessing you'd like the rosemary replacement even less. Maybe a little thyme, or skip the herbs altogether?
 
Sharon January 20, 2016
Tarragon is what makes a Béarnaise a Béarnaise. Just make a Hollandaise instead. They can be often interchanged, having the same basic properties and mouth feel.